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How God Impacts Science

There’s been a bit of a dust-up around the blogosphere about this over the last few days to a large extent amongst people involved in science professionally in one way or another. Since I’m not responding directly, I will only note that I read of this debate through Dispatches from the Culture Wars, and you can find links at Ed’s current post, Clarifying the Moran Debate.

Since I’m called a theistic evolutionist, though it is a term to which I have previously objected, I thought I’d make a few comments on how God and scripture impact the way I look at science. I can’t say “the way I do science, because my field is Biblical studies, and not one of the natural sciences.

My answer to the question could be either “lots, in every way” (to paraphrase Paul in Romans 3:2), or “not at all.”

Let me look at the “lots, in every way” answer first. As a Christian theist, and that says much more than merely belief in a somehow personal God, I see God everywhere. To use Tillich’s concept, God is the ground of all being, beyond being itself. I share Tillich’s discomfort with talking about God as existing, though I still do so. God, as I conceive him, is beyond that. I do not explain his existence, because I cannot. In terms of explanations, God is a step beyond what I can explain, while being the ultimate cause of all the things that I can explain. That’s pretty much all encompassing.

At the same time, things fall, planets go on in their orbits, stars are formed and die, life evolves, and all of this happens in predictable, observable patterns that we can express in theories and laws. By observing, forming hypotheses, and testing them, we can make progress on our knowledge.

There is often great skepticism about science because so many things that we once believed have been overturned. Each piece of progress in science involves demolition or serious renovation of some previous structure in our mental landscape. But that is not really cause for skepticism, but rather for confidence. While medical science has learned new things, life expectancy has consistently increased, and diseases that were once near certain death sentences are now curable. You can reject medicine because it has been in error before, but if you abandon scientific medicine, you will be wrong much more of the time.

Frequently in theological arguments, expecially arguments that relate closely to epistemology, I’ll say simply that one can test any epistemology by simply asking whether you’d like to ride in an airliner built according to that theory. This annoys the more sophisticated philosophers with whom I occasionally discuss. It’s so naive, and ignores so much philosophical theorizing and writing. But the bottom line is that the reason philosophers can get on airplanes and go argue that knowledge is terribly uncertain and that one cannot be sure of much of anything is that scientists and engineers did not think that knowledge was unattainable, or that information was mutable when they built those airplanes. Pilots didn’t think that texts only had meaning infused into them by the reader when they read the manuals in order to learn how to fly those airplanes. Air traffic controllers were pretty certain of certain facts when they gave directions to those airplanes to get them to their destinations and safely into the correct airports.

In other words, science has this odd tendency to work. The tendency to work is only odd, of course, if you accept some philosophy that says that it doesn’t matter too much if you’re right or wrong, or that human beings can’t be very certain of anything. Now certainty is itself a dangerous word. Scientists are not absolutely certain of much of anything, at least if they’re good scientists. But they do know that within a certain context, a certain set of circumstances, specific things will happen and others won’t. You can draw up blueprints and build working machines based on those theories.

In this area it matters not in the least whether God created the universe or not, whether there is a God who is personally attentive to each and every event in the universe or not, whether there is, after all, any reason to talk about a “ground of all being.” It simply doesn’t matter. The way one studies, the way one tests, the way one makes progress assumes only that the universe operates in repeatable, predictable ways, and that these can be discovered.

Now let me look at the role of God in this from a couple of directions. Many Christians, even amongst those who are willing to admit the possibility of biological evolution, still want to have children taught in science class that God is behind all of it. But what impact does this have on science class? If I explain to my child why something falls if I drop it, I don’t have to add at the end of the explanation, “And God makes that happen.”

But there is an even bigger problem, I think, when this is suggested for the public school classroom. How is God involved? There is no general agreement on that point. As a result, while there is no positive effect that I can see there is a very definite negative effect, in that we ask a science teacher, with no training in philosophy or theology (or at least no required training) who is supposed to explain the relationship of God to the universe while teaching about simple natural laws. That’s both a waste of time, and a great danger in a pluralistic society. One could create a whole class on just the various views of God and the world, and at the end of that class the students would not know anything more about how the world actually functions.

From the point of view of science, how would God intrude? Again, the fact is that whether God is ultimately behind all of this doesn’t impact actual scientific work in the least. If at some point we start discovering places where nature doesn’t function consistently, there might be a point in asking whether the supernatural was intervening. But I don’t see any such raw edges in science, and I see no theological reason to expect such a thing either. God makes a lousy scientific hypothesis. Saying “God did it” does no more for science than saying “it happened.” It explains nothing, correlates nothing, and proposes no new questions to be answered by experimentation.

The temptation here is to be binary, as we are in so may cases, to see this issue as purely theism (with one view), as opposed to atheism with another. But there are in fact many variations of viewpoint. Deism properly designates those who see a God who is creator, but who does not intervene in the universe or communicate with creatures. Theists start from those who believe God is personal but acts very little to those who would take an essentially superstitious view (and there still are such people), who don’t look at the laws of nature in guiding hurricanes, for example, but see God as directing them personally to destroy city X rather than city Y.

When a theist proposes God as an explanation for anything in science, then that is not a scientific proposal. I think very often that I actually have less faith in science than those who propose intelligent design (ID) for example. I simply don’t think science will extend to explaining God, because science explains the natural world, not the supernatural, and whether the supernatural “exists” or not, science doesn’t explain it. At the same time, other than saying why the natural world exists at all, the supernatural doesn’t explain anything in science either. This is my objection to the term “theistic evolutionist” which implies that I, or more importantly theists who are scientists, believe something different about evolution than non-theistic scientists. In fact, I believe in both God and evolution, but I don’t expect any scientific experiment to turn up with the answer: “God!”

Religion can, on the other hand, make claims that can be verified (or not) by science. If I claim that a particular miracle of healing has taken place, science can determine whether someone was actually healed. One can have an antirational religion when one proposes that things have happened, when they can be scientifically disconfirmed. (Note that I do not mean simply that science has proven them impossible in natural terms, but rather that science can demonstrate that a particular event did not occur.) For example, Kurt Wise in his book Faith, Form, and Time makes the claim that origins must conform to the description provided in Genesis, which he takes as a form of narrative history. I use Kurt Wise’s work because his is the most honest and scientific young earth view that I have found. Nonetheless, he makes numerous claims that I believe have been disconfirmed by scientific research, even though he believes scientists to be in error on those points and that eventually it will be scientifically proven that he’s right. In that case one’s belief in God is very relevant to how one does science.

I would like to make one final remark on the testing and reliability of theological knowledge. I would suggest that one of the most cogent verses in scripture is 1 Corinthians 13:12, “dimly in a mirror.” It has been suggested that a philosopher is like a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that isn’t there. It has been further suggested that in the same circumstances, a theologian will find the cat. (It’s an old joke and I’m not sure of its origin.) We tend to make more absolute assertions of our theological assertions than our scientific ones, when in fact we should do no such thing. Humility is most strongly indicated when one is trying to study God.

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  1. “Humility is most strongly indicated when one is trying to study God.”
    Seems to me that a little humility could be benificial all around… evolutionary ‘scientists’ seem to possess an authoritarian attitude on certain subjects whose conclusions are doubtful when the evidence is actually examined without bias. The problem is that BIAS seems to be the rule of the day when so-called scientific organizations who claim to uphold pure science, have in their mandate a principal that makes their bias more important than the actual evidence they are studying. No-one can convince me that they are doing good science. I’m not saying that religious scientists are guilt-free here, but at least they are looking at all the evidence. I’m a Christian mostly because when looking at ALL the evidence, evolution is by far not the best explanation.

  2. I would suggest that there is a difference in the character of humility that is required. In my own field of study–Biblical studies–I would feel that I should be humble about my knowledge of God, what God is like, and how God thinks. I should show humility by not implying that I have God all figured out. Humility here stems from an expectation that I will never be absolutely certain. I’ll allow that the experience of others may differ from mine, as well as what they derive from it.

    On the other hand, if I’m commenting on New Testament manuscripts, for example, I can make substantially more absolute statements. I should manifest humility in that case by being prepared to hear evidence that I’m wrong, since this is a subject on which one can expect more comprehensive knowledge. But I don’t just roll over because someone claims I’m wrong.

    I think evolutionary scientists are in this latter state. If they refuse to examine evidence that they are wrong, that would be problematic. But I don’t see that happening. What I see is that scientists are unwilling to back off of what their best evidence holds. I don’t regard that as arrogant, any more than I regard the aeronautical engineer as arrogant for requiring an aircraft to be designed according to sound aeronautical principles. On the other hand if someone comes along with a better idea, and presents concrete evidence, then that should change.

    Creationists, whether young earth or intelligent design proponents have yet to produce the type of evidence their claims would require.

    One last point–I don’t find Christianity to be contradictory to the theory of evolution. Perhaps it is to your version, but I find nothing here that would make this a debate about whether one should be a Christian or not. I also don’t see any evidence that Christian scientists are looking at some larger body of evidence than are non-Christian scientists.

  3. I’d say that, in science, arrogance is something you earn. Evolutionary biologists have actively worked to expose their science to reality wherever possible, and have been rewarded by a model that can generate concrete, testable, non-obvious, accurate predictions. For a field as intrinsically fuzzy as biology, that’s fairly remarkable.

    Creationists and IDers, by contrast, merely attempt to redescribe reality in a fashion that’s compatible with their personal views on God. That’s no great feat – given enough effort, any set of data can be rendered compatible with any premise. It’s even easier for IDers, because they scrupulously avoid presenting a model of their own.

    With this great disparity in the quality of the two groups’ output, possibly a little arrogance is justified.

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